December 2010 Issue  Volume 11  Number 8

Access Issues

Microsoft Backtracks on Accessibility in New Mobile Operating System, Commits to Accessibility in Future Windows Phone Platform

Last month, senior Microsoft officials acknowledged to advocates for people who are blind or visually impaired that its new mobile platform, Windows Phone 7 (WP7), does not include the accessibility components that were part of earlier Microsoft mobile operating systems. This means new cell phones that run on WP7 will not include any significant built-in accessibility for people with vision loss, and it is not compatible with any third-party screen-access solutions.

During the day-long meeting at the Redmond, WA, campus, Microsoft officials were candid in acknowledging the serious damage they had done to accessibility for people with vision loss. Andy Lees, president of Microsoft's Mobile Communications Business, accepted responsibility, saying, "We were incompetent on this."

The Microsoft team also admitted they were late in engaging advocates and assistive technology developers regarding the problems with WP7. In addition to the American Foundation for the Blind, other blindness organizations represented at the meeting included the American Council of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind from the United States; the Canadian National Institute for the Blind; the Royal National Institute of Blind People in the United Kingdom; ONCE, Spain's National Organization of the Blind; and Vision Australia.

Lees said Microsoft is committed to accessibility, but admitted that it will be a multi-year process.

What Happened?

Microsoft's Windows Mobile 6.5 does support Code Factory's Mobile Speak and Mobile Magnifier screen-access programs, and can still be found in smart phones like the Samsung Jack and the HTC Touch Pro 2. So what happened?

The number of smart phones running Microsoft's mobile operating system has slipped rapidly to less than 5 percent of the market. The company decided to completely rework the platform in an effort to rebuild its market in mobile communications. Chuck Bilow, who handles accessibility for WP7, stressed that it is an entirely new operating system and user interface. He noted that no applications from earlier Microsoft mobile operating systems will run on WP7 and no handset that currently runs Windows Mobile 6.5 can run the WP7 operating system.

Lees said Microsoft did a "hard reset" with their WP7 efforts. Microsoft will have more control over the specific features and functions that will be built into the phones, while leaving room for innovation by the manufacturers. He described WP7 as falling between the very restrictive Apple iPhone model and the wide-open Android model. Manufacturers currently building Windows 7 phones include Samsung, Dell, LG, and HTC. Although he is positive about the future of WP7, Lees admitted that Microsoft is not yet where it wants to be with this new operating system. Accessibility is an obvious area where improvement is critical, but Lees also mentioned the need to add multitasking and cut-and-paste capabilities. He also said WP7 currently works only on GSM networks used by carriers such as AT&T and T-Mobile, and that they need to develop compatibility with CDMA networks such as those used by Verizon and Sprint. Both GSM and CDMA are common mobile telephony standards.

What Is the Road Map to Accessibility?

According to Bilow, Windows Phone 7 does include a few useful features for people with low vision. For instance, there is a contrast control to help accommodate people with low vision, and it also has zoom capabilities within certain HTML-based applications, but not yet in the general interface.

In a statement released after the meeting, Lees said, "Microsoft's goal is to deliver platforms, products, and services that are accessible. We recognize that there is more we can do in this respect, and our goal is to develop Windows Phone into a compelling option for people who are blind or visually impaired."

Lees went on to say, "These plans include further expanding use of speech functionality to create a better eyes-free phone experience, and building on this technology to enable screenreading functionality specifically tailored to the one-of-a-kind Windows Phone interface." And, he added, "We hope to shape and define this future in partnership with the blind and visually impaired communities."

What Will Happen?

Although Microsoft officials did not make specific commitments regarding the access features that would be added to future releases of the Windows Phone platform or state when changes would take place, they did embrace the call for built-in screen access. The iPhone solution was mentioned many times.

As representatives from the blindness community, we made it clear that we want built-in accessibility at no extra cost, and Microsoft representatives agreed with that goal. We also agreed that we want to keep it open for third-party developers to be able to enhance that access with additional applications. We further urged Microsoft to make it easy for all third-party application developers to make their apps accessible. Microsoft agreed with our suggestions to incorporate more users who are blind or visually impaired into the design process, and they agreed to provide us with prototypes to gather our input. Microsoft also agreed to bring back all of the represented organizations for another roundtable discussion to discuss the company's progress a year from now.

It is likely that the development of access solutions for the Windows Phone platform could take as long as two years. As a short-term strategy, Microsoft is still supporting Windows Mobile 6.5 phones, which are compatible with Code Factory's screen-access products.

Microsoft should have known better and there is no excuse for releasing WP7 without considering accessibility. That said, the advocates who gathered in Redmond were cautiously optimistic that this misstep might lead Microsoft to produce a more fully accessible platform for mobile phones. Phones are no longer just phones. They are really small-but-powerful computers that fit in your hand, and the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act requires developers of advanced communications devices to make these phones accessible for people with vision loss or other disabilities.

We expect that the blindness organizations across the globe will work to hold Microsoft's feet to the fire. As Ronald Reagan used to say, "Trust but verify."

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